Daddy used to always take me out into the woods just behind the house, where the roads became gravel, and then nothing but dirt before disappearing altogether under a massive outcrop of roots and greenery. When I was younger, this was our place. We could go out there and laugh and play, no matter what was happening on that day. That was the one place in our lives where we could just be us. Silly. Goofy. There were no secrets there. I was his son, and I knew that he was proud of me. He was my father, and he knew that I was proud of him. In those days things weren’t always easy for us. Being the only Black family on the block, and just so happening to live in the biggest house in the neighborhood, didn’t win us any popularity contests, but my mother and father raised us like we lived in the wood cabins of their youth. They made it their business to make sure that we knew that we were not rich by any means. Rather they made sure that we understood that where were lived, and what we had were the result of our ancestors going through what we would never have to.
My fondest memory of these times also happens to be one of my saddest. That day my Dad had been rather sullen and withdrawn. His normal boisterous smile was muted, more the color gray that than the normal hot pinks that flowed through him. He was silent as we walked. The air was cool and crisp on that fall day. The only sound seemed to be coming from the branches and twigs being crushed underfoot as we walked. I kept looking over at him, wondering what was wrong, but the moment also seemed too reverent to speak, so I remained silent. Finally, when we had come to the clearing, Dad stopped and looked up through the canopy of branches. He still said nothing, so I stood there silent, soaking up the moment. As I looked closer, I saw his cheeks were wet. I took a step closer to him, and sure enough, his eyes were brimming over with fat tears rolling down his face. His brow was furrowed, and his lips moved silently.
“Dad?”, I whispered.
At first he didn’t answer. He continued looking up between the breaks in the branches, as if something there was calling out to him in a tone that only he could hear. So I looked, and I stared. I glanced, and I gazed. I peered until my eyes grew tired and strained. Just as I were about to ask my father again, his voice came through softly, but with a piercing quality that I had never heard before.
“They see us here, you know?”, he said.
“Who, Dad?”, I asked quizzically, still looking up and trying to see what he was seeing.
Dad looked at me, placing his hands on my shoulders. His eyes now flowed freely with tears and his upper lip trembled as he struggled to speak. The words wouldn’t come at first, and I felt his hand dig slightly into my shoulder. I knew he needed my strength, so I stood there.
After awhile, he took a deep breath. He lifted his great, big hand and wiped his face. Then, looking me square in the eyes, he said,
“The Ancestors….they see us. You. They see..this”, stretching his hands around us toward the woods.
“They are watching”, he began, “to make sure that we aren’t squandering this opportunity to do what they could only dream. They are watching to make sure that you, black boy, have the chance to grow up and become the black man that they prayed for decades before you were even a speck in Heaven. They are watching to make sure that your mother and I have been faithful to the promise we made to God…that if He would bless us with a son, we not only give him back to Him, but we would show him God in our actions, not just in our words.”
Then, after another brief pause, his voice came through stronger, and clearer. Looking up through the branches again, he lifted his voice as though speaking to no one, but everyone in every place.
“Have we pleased you, Ancestors?”, he yelled, “Are you proud? Look at him. He is everything we were told he would be. So I ask you, ‘Are you pleased?'”
I followed his eyes upward, and continued looking up, up, and still further up than I should have been able to see. That was when I first saw it. Smiles. At first, I thought that I was crazy, but as I continued to look, I saw more and more smiles. Not only that, but I heard laughter. I looked around, spinning my body from left to right, but saw no one around. I looked over at my dad, and he was also laughing in loud, resounding tones. He had a look of a man who had ben stamped with the ultimate approval. And the laughter grew and grew until the gaps between every branch in those woods became filled with light. This was a light so bright, so blinding…that I had to cover my eyes for fear of losing my vision. I didn’t have to look though. Somewhere deep inside of me, I knew what was happening, and as if reading my thoughts, my dad took me in his arms for a long hug.
As we stood there, bathed in this surreal light, my dad whispered into my ears,
“Son, they ARE proud of you. And so are we.”
Time stopped. That moment became etched into my mind for the rest of my life. Me, my dad, and our ancestors, sharing a moment that can never be taken away. In the beginning, I said that this was also a memory of sadness, and I say that for this reason. My father passed away from a brain aneurysm the next morning. The Doctors said that there was nothing that could be done, that nobody could have seen this coming. I don’t believe them.
And he took me out there into our special place that one last time to share in a moment that affirmed us both. They were not simply approving me. They were welcoming him. He had earned his place in the pantheon of our family. And so now, I bring my son to this very same place. We talk. We laugh. We joke. We are goofy and silly. We are who we are, but we never leave that place until I tell my son about our ancestors, the legends upon whose backs we stand.
I tell him about my father.
I know the time will come when I will have to make my own case before our ancestors, but until that time comes, we will enjoy this place. Our place.
My father, my son, and me.